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Extended Summary

Frances Hodgson Burnett is an author and playwright who has written more than forty novels and several plays. She is best known for her children’s stories, including The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Burnett was born in Manchester, England, in 1849 but moved with her family to America when she was sixteen and has lived there ever since. Originally titled Mistress Mary, The Secret Garden was published serially starting in 1910; it was published as a completed novel in 1911.

Mary Lennox is a cross, ugly nine-year-old girl who is raised by a series of servants in India because her mother does not want to be bothered with her. As a consequence, Mistress Mary is a spoiled, lethargic, anemic girl who has never even dressed herself and imperiously gives orders to everyone around her; not surprisingly, no one likes her. She is so secluded (and ignored) that only a few people even know she exists; she is so selfish and self-absorbed that no one cares. When a cholera outbreak strikes her home, Mary’s parents die, and Mary is forgotten and abandoned. After she is finally discovered, an English clergyman’s family takes her in. They give her the nickname “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.” She remains there until she is sent to her uncle’s home in England.

Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, meets Mary and accompanies her to Misselthwaite Manor, a six-hundred-year-old mansion with a hundred rooms. The isolated estate adjoins a moor, but it contains many gardens. Mary is not a pleasant girl. One of the house servants, Martha Sowerby, makes it clear that she will not be treated as Mary used to treat her servants back in India. In fact, Martha thinks it is almost comical that Mary is unable to dress herself—Martha’s four-year-old sister dresses herself every day. Mary is pale and weak and dependent, but Martha does not intend to feed those weaknesses; instead, she determines that Mary will become independent and strong under her care.

Martha mentions a secret garden that had been the private domain of Archibald Craven’s deceased wife, and Mary begins to search for it. The garden has been unused for ten years, but Mary is determined. One day she sees a robin in the gardens. She has never before seen a robin, but she feels an immediate kinship with this bird. When the cantankerous gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, sees that the robin appears to somehow approve of this contrary little girl, he calls the robin to him and begins to think more highly of Mary. When she asks about the hidden garden, Ben does not encourage her in her quest, though he grudgingly admits to its existence. He tells her that the former mistress of the manor, Mrs. Archibald Craven, loved roses and had a garden that she personally cultivated. In this floral sanctuary, she and her husband used to spend many private hours together, reading and talking. One day when Mrs. Craven sat in an old tree, the branch fell—and she died from the fall the next day. Before she died, she made Ben promise he would take care of her garden. According to her husband, however, the garden was to be untouched. The key was buried and the garden lost forever. None of the servants were to talk about it or their former mistress; Mr. Craven has never recovered from the loss.

Mary is thrilled at the prospect of finding the garden. She also realizes she is beginning to change for the better. Several times she hears a child crying in the night, but she is told it is the wind. Mary is not convinced. The next time she hears the sound, she begins wandering the corridors and opening doors. She finds nothing but a small family of mice.

Spring is coming, and Mary spends more time in the gardens, which improves her color, and gives her strength, and increases her appetite. One day the robin appears to direct her to a hole in the ground in which she finds a rusty key; she hopes it is the key to the garden. One day not long after, Martha gives Mary a skipping rope as a present intended to...

(The entire section is 2,671 words.)